Why do sidewalks matter?
Did you know that it’s estimated that up to 40% of the U.S. population does not drive? This includes children, of course, but also people who are disabled, elderly or choose not to drive. Sidewalks, not roads, are the main transportation facility for a big chunk of our community.
We’ve all seen people walking in the roads, but it’s not hard to see that sidewalks provide a preferable space for pedestrian travel than using the street. Take a close look at the picture for this post – it’s one that we took several years ago of an elderly couple making a perilous winter journey (presumably out of necessity) along the shoulder of Central Entrance near Miller Hill Mall, Duluth’s main commercial district.
Besides providing a safe passageway for all to use, investing in sidewalks—infrastructure that promotes walking—has many benefits spread widely across the community.
It’s not news that an increasing portion of the population, including many children, lack regular physical exercise. And walking is one of the most practical ways to increase physical activity among a broad population.
Health experts believe that more balanced transportation systems can contribute to improved personal and community health not only because they accommodate and encourage active transportation, but also because they provide opportunities for increased social interaction and, with more “eyes on the street” can reduce crime.
A good sidewalk network, by providing “walkable” infrastructure, is strongly linked to a community’s economic vitality. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, “walkable neighborhoods typically have active streets that promote commercial exchange, while providing safe and efficient ways for residents to travel on foot.”
Sidewalks can also promote less reliance on automobiles, when walking is an option for shorter trips.
Walking tends to be particularly important for elderly, disabled and lower-income people who have few opportunities to participate in sports or formal exercise programs and more limited transportation options.
And most trips that anyone makes have a walking component, whether it is between a parking spot and a final destination or to and from a transit stop.
That’s Where We Come In
The MIC has been working with the City of Duluth and area stakeholders on a two-phase study of Duluth sidewalks. In today’s financial climate, resources for sidewalk maintenance and development are limited. Good information is needed to utilize those scare resources efficiently. A number of citizen groups in the Duluth area, as well as city administration, have requested that sidewalk information be developed to assist with making targeted decisions about sidewalk improvements. The results of this analysis will be used to determine future capital improvements for sidewalk development, preservation, snow removal and maintenance.
The first phase—the sidewalk inventory—has been underway since last spring to develop an accurate inventory of where sidewalks are located and what condition they are in. When it’s complete, this information will be presented as a searchable GIS tool.
The second phase of the study—priority pedestrian modeling¬ will identify which sidewalks are the most heavily used, based on pedestrian generators such as schools, retail areas and transit stops. Other information considered in the model includes population density, poverty rates and transit ridership.
So, what do you think?
Negotiations on the new federal transportation bill may eliminate funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure and dedicate it to the construction of roads and bridges only. Are sidewalks part of your personal transportation network? What ones around town do you use, or present obstacles?
Co-writing credit: Rondi Watson